Had enough? Even more tips from the SEJ Conference...
When a disaster strikes, the public tends to turn to the media for coverage and answers. At the SEJ Conference last week, one of the breakfast sessions was about Covering Disasters...Without Becoming One. The tips and strategies that the reporters on the panel shared could be used not just by journalists, but also by the progressive community when it comes to preparing for disasters.
With Hurricane Katrina and other recent disasters such as the 2004 tsunami and the wildfires raging in California still fresh in our minds, it's smart to have a communications plan in the event of a crisis. Environmental reporters are often sent into the thick of things when a disaster happens in order to accurately report on what is happening. But at the same time, many non profits are also end up riding out the disaster as well or are working on issues related to the crisis.
Mark Schleifstein, an environmental reporter for the Time-Picayune in New Orleans, explained how easy it can be to become personally involved in what is happening around you. His newspaper was forced to evacuate after Hurricane Katrina hit and they saw the devastation that Katrina left behind first-hand. Seeing what was happening to the people still stuck in New Orleans emotionally affected some of the Time-Picayune staff. Whether you are covering a story, doing advocacy work or gathering information for your members, you need to make sure you are prepared for the emotional toll of a disaster. Also remember that your safety comes first - you may think being right in the middle of a monster storm is the exciting place to be, but you'll be able to get to most information from people doing through the disaster at an emergency center or local shelter.
Ken Ward, Jr. of the Charleston Gazette was asked by his editor why he kept covering local mine safety. Then the recent tragedy at the Sago mine happened and Ken told his editor, "That's why." He explained that it is important to educate the public on why a disaster happened and if it was preventable, so that it won't happen again. Climate change is a huge issue right now and progressives are working hard to get this issue in front of the public. Even if your issue doesn't get covered initially, don't give up. Some news can help to avert a disaster and that is why Ken kept covering mine safety - he was hoping to avoid what happened at Sago.
George Wuerthner, a freelance writer and photographer, explained that he covers wildfires so that we can give the public the proper information on this "disaster." Wildfires can be devastating, but sometimes they are needed and are a way nature helps to clear out a forest. George's main tip was that words and photos can change the way a story is interpreted. Watch what you write if you don't want your audience to read your story the wrong way. It is up to us to deliver the fact correctly and make sure the news is covered fairly. Even a photo can change the way a story is viewed. George detailed how he had seen a photo of a wildfire he witnessed that show the fire reaching towards the sky. This was only in one small section where the trees had collapsed to make the fire in that one section rasie up. It wasn't a proper illustration of the wildfire as a whole.
Another tip the journalists shared with those attending the session is that during a disaster, communications may be minimal. Power may out and there may be no access to email. If you have stories you want covered, be prepared that some journalists and/or news outlets may have no way to recieve those stories until the disaster blows over.
The SEJ Conference was an interesting experience and I think the GMT staff who attended learned a lot of new tips and met some great people!
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